6

I'm reading this older book called Poetic Meter and Poetic Form by Paul Fussell. In a chapter called "Metrical Variations", a part of a poem is cited as an example of overly regular metre. The poem is called "America for Me" (written by Henry Van Dyke) and these are the quoted lines:

I know that Europe's wonderful, yet something seems to lack:
The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free-
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.

Obviously, lines 1 and 4 are uniformly iambic. But don't lines 2 and 3 break the iambic mould? I'm not saying the variations are either good or bad, just that Fussell's claim that these lines are too regular looks false to me.

This is how I think I would scan them:

The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free-

(This is in keeping with the pattern of scansion elsewhere in the book. "too much" appears in another quoted poem as well and has been marked as a spondee, while conjunctions and prepositions are typically marked unstressed.)

I don't know how I would group the syllables of line 2 into feet, but I think line 3 is three anapaests and two iambs.

How would you scan these two lines? Do you agree with Fussell that they are too regular?

2 Answers 2

3

In general poems do not have “correct” scansions. Two readers who understand a line in different ways may put the stress on different words, leading to different scansions. So there is always a degree of personal opinion, meaning that Fussell might think the lines too regular, while you find a pleasant amount of variation. Nonetheless, there are a few points in the question that do not seem quite right to me.

First, the question suggests that particular words or sequences of words should always be scanned the same way (viz. “‘too much’ appears in another quoted poem as well and has been marked as a spondee”). This is not the case: the same words may be scanned one way in one context and another way in a different context. C. S. Lewis gave this demonstration of the phenomenon:

Read

I have given no man of my fruit to eat,
    I trod the grapes, I have drunken the wine.
Had you eaten and drunken and found it sweet,
    This wild new growth of the corn and vine;

and now read this:

I comfort few and many I torment,
Where one is spared a thousand more are spent;
I have trodden many down beneath my feet,
I have given no man of my fruit to eat.

I conjecture that you have read the last line of my second example differently from the opening line of my first: yet as mere language, separated from the ideal pattern, they are identical.

C. S. Lewis (1939). ‘The Fifteenth-century Heroic Line’. In Laurence Binyon, ed. (1939). Essays and Studies, volume XXIV, p.31. Oxford: Clarendon.

So if both syllables of “too much” are stressed in one line, it does not follow that they must be stressed in all lines. The scansion is affected by the context, so that it’s necessary to look at each line in its own context.

Second, the question analyzes line 3 as “three anapests and two iambs” but a careful count of the syllables shows that’s not right: there are four syllables in “-sent is to make” so this would be a fourth paeon and not an anapest; and similarly for “-y of the Pre-” (you could imagine eliding “-y” and “of”, but it would be a bit stilted). However, English verse does not really have paeons, because there is always some variation in stress on adjacent syllables, so that a fourth paeon turns into a pair of iambs by the addition of a little stress on the second syllable, a so-called “promoted” stress.

Third, if the context of a line is highly regular, many (most?) readers will do their best to apply the same kind of regularity to the line itself. That’s what’s going on in the quotation from C. S. Lewis above, where the first quatrain is anapestic tetrameter with a few substitutions by iambs, so many readers will read “I have given no man of my fruit to eat”, and the second quatrain is iambic pentameter, so many readers will read “I have given no man of my fruit to eat”, with a promoted stress on “of”.

Putting all this together, in the context of ‘America For Me’, by the time the fifth stanza in reached, the mostly-iambic context is well established, so that many readers, including Fussell and myself, read the lines as

The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free

where the first line has a promoted stress on “and” and the second line is headless and there is a promoted stress on “of”. Whether this is too regular is a matter of taste. One might say that a metrical regularity suits the bombast.

5
  • English definitely has paeons. Consider "I am the very model of a modern major General. // I've information vegetable, animal and mineral." The whole song is in paeons. On the other hand, they are rare, as they are very hard to write, and are quite similar to iambs, and so likely to be mistaken for them.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 18:54
  • @PeterShor Very long iambic or trochaic lines tend to develop a pattern where alternating stresses are stronger and weaker, e.g. "Ah! distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December" Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 19:02
  • Yes, but I don't think the ones in Modern Major General developed naturally; I think Gilbert intentionally wrote them that way. On the other hand, the tendency of some of the lines in America for Me to be paeonic could easily be unintentional.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 19:54
  • The first selection of course is Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time" but the second rings no bells. What is it?
    – user14111
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 9:24
  • @user14111 I assume that it was written by C. S. Lewis for the purpose of illustration. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 9:41
1

Mr. Rees's excellent answer distinguishes between meter, which follows just a few simple rules and is more mathematical than sonal, and rhythm, which is what we say and hear, and which has a great amount of variety. Unfortunately, many teachers and books confuse the two. They mistakenly find metrical exceptions and anomalies in metrically regular lines that contain variations in RHYTHM, not meter.

I have only one difference with Mr. Rees:

"But the glory of the present..."

Pronouncing this as headless puts an odd stress on "But" and creates a line with 8 "downbeats," while the other lines have 7.

I would take "But the glo-" as an anapaest, which is common enough at the start of an iambic line.

1
  • sonal? Do you mean sound?
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 3 at 19:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.